ANKARA: The deployment of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces to the north of Syria’s Manbij province on Tuesday, according to Turkish media reports, sparked a new debate about how regional powers, especially Turkey, would react to this abrupt attempt to fill the vacuum being left by the withdrawal of US forces.
The move by Assad forces in the Kurdish-held region is seen as complementing their deal with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a former US ally led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The SDF and representatives of the Assad regime recently held a meeting to coordinate the move.
Before the US withdrawal, American and Turkish forces were jointly conducting patrols in Manbij region and the June deal between Ankara and Washington presumed the withdrawal of the YPG militia from the region, but the deal was not fully implemented.
Since Dec. 23, Turkey, along with Ankara-backed Syrian opposition forces, has amassed troops and sent reinforcements, including a commando unit, to the Manbij frontline in an attempt to encircle the area and avert Syrian regime troops from altering the status quo on the ground.
According to experts interviewed by Arab News, the YPG has been searching for a buffer since the US withdrawal and is expected to lean toward the Assad regime as a protective shield.
“However, reaching consensus with the regime bears with it some political and military costs to the YPG,” said Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at ORSAM, an Ankara-based think-tank.
“It will have to give up its maximalist federalism claims entirely, while its security shield should be integrated within the Syrian army at some point.”
Orhan said that any potential conflict between YPG and Turkey in Manbij would incur huge losses for the Syrian Kurdish militia, which currently controls about 25 percent of Syrian territory and approximately 65 percent of the border with Turkey.
“The YPG is, therefore, focused on reaching a settlement with the regime,” he said. “However, the presence of regime forces in Manbij would not prevent Turkey from launching a currently pending military offensive within the region because it will not eliminate Turkey’s domestic security concerns.”
Ankara considers the YPG a Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
The threat posed by the Iran-backed militia in Syria is another parameter to take into consideration while evaluating checks and balances in Manbij.
“The Trump administration said it would ensure that Iranian-backed militias don’t fill the power vacuum,” Orhan said.
“In the same vein, Moscow would prefer the presence of regime forces rather than the dominance of the Iranian militia.”
According to Orhan, regime forces are now focusing all their military clout in the eastern bank of Euphrates river, while pledging to ease the situation in Syrian city of Idlib.
Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the Assad regime consented to Turkey’s presence in Idlib as a military entity rather than an occupying force.
“Coordination between the YPG and the regime has existed since before the US announced the withdrawal of its forces from Syria,” Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, told Arab News.
“They tried several times to re-open the negotiation channels. The clashes that broke out between them on different fronts were random acts and were not part of an organized campaign.”
Saban underlines that the regime forces were part of the Manbij military operation under the SDF.
“They decided to integrate some of their forces and dispatched them in the eastern and western sides of Al-Arimah village,” he said. “It is obvious that they do not feel the need to cover their cooperation with the YPG any longer.”
According to Saban, it is likely to see even an bigger advance in Manbij area, but the regime said it would “exercise restraint” on the southern part of Manbij and intervene in the cities as an institution and not as a security force.
The regime is testing the reactions of regional players, Saban said.
“The Kurds are not capable of handling such an area alone without the Americans and that is why they needed the regime, but the Russians will not allow the regime to do anything that would provoke the Turks,” he added.
From this point of view, Saban doesn’t think that the regime would think twice about advancing in areas that Ankara deems important, such as Tal Abyad.
The consensus between Moscow and Ankara will be crucial for the region, according to experts.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday that he may meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the US withdrawal from Syria and to increase coordination. A date for the meeting has yet to be set. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will also visit Russia over the same agenda.